2004-12-11

Which side are you on?

A reference, of course, to the classic Billy Bragg track from Between The Wars EP (but I have it on Back to Basics; BB attributes it to Florence Reece "adapted" by him but the adaption is heavy). Meanwhile...

I mentioned the s(k|c)eptics a post or so back, so now its time to talk about the other sides. The "S" is deliberate: if you listen the the septics they will tell you it is a riotous debate between them and the enviro's and science won't get a look in. But in fact its rather more like this:


  • The vast weight of science - effectively, the IPCC consensus
  • Overenthusiastic enviro's
  • Skeptics


Just like there isn't really a good name for the skeptics, there isn't really a good name for the envio's either. "Zealots" is another term; "Alarmists" another. None really fit. In terms of numbers, the overwhelming majority of the science and the scientists is in the first group: 95% of both or more, by my guess. Of course, "belief" in this area is a spectrum not a 3-class structure: some scientists who would strongly support the IPCC against the septics would nonetheless accept, say, that the temperature record of the last 1000 years isn't as well known as it might be. But those are details.

The other point to make - an obvious one perhaps - is that those in the first group are by far the quietest. Partly, this is because scientists on the whole just get on with doing science. Partly, its because many science organisations don't much like their employees speaking to the media except through their own PR organisations (this isn't toally unreasonable, but its taken too far). And partly (I suspect, though I have no direct experience of it) its through political pressure. The septics are prone to saying that political influence biases science towards what they regard as the alarmist view: but in fact its pretty obvious that in the US at least, the influence is all the other way. If you're a scientist the obvious response to this pressure is to keep quiet and get on with your work.

John Zillman expressed this well, and I shall use a speech of his lightly modified below. The modifications are light but significant, if you want to compare.

Start-of-semi-quote from JZ:

There is of course no shortage of people, these days, providing comment on the science of climate change:


  • The first group is the largest and probably the most boring. It is the mainstream climate community who understand the science pretty well and believe that they have an obligation to present a balanced view of what is known and what is not known in language that can be understood by the non expert. They try to present an objective assessment of both the certainties and the uncertainties and inevitably leave those who are looking for an unequivocal 'is it' or 'isn't it' feeling rather frustrated ;
  • The second group are the fervent believers who have become so convinced that, without drastic action, the world is headed towards climatic catastrophe, that they feel bound to do whatever it takes to get the message across to governments and the community. If they---the fervent believers turned greenhouse zealots---have to dramatise a bit to make people pay attention, they see that as justified by the seriousness of the threat;
  • The third group are the committed sceptics who are convinced that the mainstream scientists have got it wrong, and who believe global warming to be, almost certainly, a non-problem.


There is also, of course, a much larger group of non-expert commentators who have become sufficiently convinced by the arguments of the greenhouse zealots, or the sceptics, that they feel bound to weigh in, in support of one side or the other; and another group, again, who have vested interest in climate change mitigation action, or inaction, and who feel justified in championing the science that supports their interests and discrediting that which does not.

End-of-semi-quote from JZ.

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